The question has nagged Tarrytown and Sleepy Hollow villagers for almost a century.
Voters’ despair over rising taxes has not fallen on deaf ears, especially in Sleepy Hollow where all eyes are on the development of Lighthouse Landing as a potential source of relief. Although the immediate future does not promise tax cuts, a plan to consolidate services in Sleepy Hollow, Tarrytown and the school district just might.
“We all provide the same baseline services, and yet we’ve had a consolidated school district for 55 years,” said Sleepy Hollow Mayor Philip Zegarelli, who met last month with Tarrytown Mayor Drew Fixell and district superintendent Dr. Howard Smith to discuss forming a blue ribbon panel that would explore the pros and cons of an intermunicipal agreement.
“Even during the campaign people said, ‘What can be done to save money here and there?’” said the recently re-elected Zegarelli, who, in cooperation with Fixell, is considering applying for state funding designated to help municipalities consolidate services.
Last year, the villages combined their summer camps, which saved them approximately $100,000, Fixell said. “You don’t need two different camp directors, and you have a better shot at achieving some economies of scale,” he said.
Besides sharing camps and the school district, the villages share a library. Yet, they operate separate public works, water, highway and recreation departments, as well as Meals on Wheels, senior bus and recreation programs that could be coordinated to eliminate overlap, Zegarelli said. “If we know costs are going up and up, why should we have duplication?” he asked.
One way to reduce local spending and, ultimately, taxes, would be to merge the villages’ services and share cost-intensive resources, like equipment, supplies, buildings and staff, Zegarelli said. “We each have separate water departments with trained people who have to take tests to service fresh water, yet we draw water off the same [Catskill] pipe. Why do we have all these different people determining that the water’s fine?” he said. “If I have a snow plow going up and down Route 9, wouldn’t it be easier to keep going into Tarrytown and not stop at the village line?”
The villages also maintain separate volunteer ambulance and fire departments, each with generations of family members in their ranks. “It’s a sacred cow and I’ll probably be beat up for saying this, but is there some way we can make a combination or do it on a joint basis?” Zegarelli asked.
Much of the money saved by consolidating services would come from employee salaries and benefits, Zegarelli said. “When you look at village government right now, fully 85 percent-plus of the entire [Sleepy Hollow] budget is mandated in the form of contractual services and obligations, like workers’ compensation and benefits,” he said.
Although consolidating salaries requires eliminating jobs, most would end with attrition, according to Zegarelli. “You can always do it … over time slowly, so you don’t fire anybody. Or, you don’t take on as many new ones [hires],” he said.
To maximize potential savings, Smith hopes to involve the school district in the villages’ move to streamline services. All three could benefit from sharing the cost of maintaining grounds and playing fields, as well as the purchase, upkeep and storage of equipment, he said.
“If we were part of the picture, then we could put our maintenance and operations piece on the table too,” Smith said. Eventually, the district might also join the villages in purchasing office supplies, cleaning products or computer equipment, he said. “You would boost purchasing power and reduce expenses on a per capita basis.”
The district already saves money by sharing some services with the villages. “We use Tarrytown’s fueling station for our buses,” Smith said. “The village passes along fuel to us at their rate. That saved us a huge chunk of money, about $10,000,” he said. The district also will save money through an arrangement with Tarrytown that will give them access to a bus repair bay in the village Department of Public Works building, Smith said. “Sleepy Hollow is thinking of giving our buses a permanent home as part of the proposed DPW building complex at the GM site … and leasing it to us at an affordable rate,” he said.
The greatest reductions, however, especially in school and property taxes, would come from merging the two villages, Smith said. “The current arrangement of being in two towns makes no sense for one school district,” he said. “That’s why we have different tax rates. It’s ridiculous.”
The problem, Zegarelli said, is that each village has its own assessment role. “People complain about taxes overall. In particular, they’re talking about school taxes,” he said. “By definition it’s not equal. It’s very important to have a standardized assessment role.”
Zegarelli, who led an unsuccessful attempt in the mid-1970s to disaffiliate Sleepy Hollow from the town of Mount Pleasant, continues to advocate for secession — Sleepy Hollow from Mount Pleasant and Tarrytown from Greenburgh — as another way to save money. “If the idea is to save money, why have two levels of government?” he asked. The town of Mount Pleasant blocked Sleepy Hollow’s effort to secede, largely because it did not want to lose tax revenue from General Motors, Zegarelli said.
Merging the two villages would cause some inconvenience, however. A
hybrid Sleepy Hollow-Tarrytown would be responsible for collecting
school and county taxes and making up any shortfall, Zegarelli said.
And, having a single, larger town might cause some to feel detached from local government, with people worried about losing their identity and local control. Although, as Fixell said, “I don’t think anybody lost their identity in the summer camp.”
Still, the many differences between the villages — including services provided, equipment owned, unions and pay scales make the plan impractical, Bruce Conca, a 22-year veteran with the Tarrytown DPW, said. “I don’t think it would work out,” Conca said. “They [Sleepy Hollow DPW employees] make more money than we do. They have more equipment than we do.”
With construction of a new village hall under way in Tarrytown, combining the two villages simply makes no sense, Conca said, adding, “They [Sleepy Hollow] can’t even get this project [Lighthouse Landing] going and they’re worried about combining towns? Forget about it.”
Asked about those with fierce village loyalties, Zegarelli said, “You have to be able to separate the spirit and pride … from the administrative perspective that I have to look at as mayor. I’m not saying we should throw tradition out the window,” he said, “but from a functional, operational, administrative perspective, I think there’s many areas that can be consolidated.”
State Incentive to Merge
Through its Shared Municipal Services Incentive Program, New York state has awarded millions of dollars in competitive grants to help dozens of municipalities and school districts consolidate services. In 2006-07, the state budget allocated $25 million for the program. Gov. Eliot Spitzer has allocated the same amount for the 2007-08 budget.
Andrea Kott is associate editor of The Hudson Independent.